Tireless Brunelli focused on bringing Webb a state title

Mar. 14, 2013 @ 10:57 PM

Leo Brunelli thought he knew basketball in the late 1990s as an assistant coach at Davie County High School.

He envisioned a system, but mentor, War Eagles’ head coach Jim Young, was always quick to disprove or better his young assistant’s theories.

Brunelli, in his seventh season as J.F. Webb head boys basketball coach, realized then there was always something more he could be doing as a leader.

“I guess it was youth and inexperience and cockiness,” said Brunelli. “I realized you have to always be a student of the game. You have to always work hard to get better for your team.”

He’s been working harder than ever this week, preparing the Warriors for Saturday’s 3-A state championship game against Statesville.

Brunelli and his staff installed the defensive gameplan for the Greyhounds Tuesday. Offense was the focus Wednesday followed by Thursday’s emphasis on the “special teams” of basketball, including inbounds plays and pressure defense. Today, the plan is to tie it all up with a review.

He has a schedule and he’s sticking to it.

“I’d call him a perfectionist,” said Warrior senior Bryan Smith. “He wants everything to be perfect. He’s very detailed. He’s got everything scheduled to the nearest minute. He’s not going to let any rock go unturned.”

Brunelli’s work ethic rubs off on players like Smith and all-everything North Carolina recruit Isaiah Hicks, who credits his coach for pushing him as a freshman.

“As a freshman, I couldn’t see myself playing for a Division I college,” said Hicks. “But Coach Brunelli sat me down, talked to me and was like, ‘The sky is the limit for you.’ He could see me playing for a team like Duke or Carolina. Ever since then, he just made me work harder and harder to get to that goal.”

That dedication has helped transform Webb basketball into a winning program, like it did in Brunelli’s first head coaching stint at North Stanly High School, where the Comets were a perennial state playoff contender.

Webb has earned a playoff berth in all but one season under the direction of Brunelli. The Warriors have advanced at least to the second round in each of those playoff seasons and appeared in the sectional finals three times.

Brunelli grew up a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania called Force. He experienced success as a student assistant for the women’s basketball team at his alma mater, Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

Brunelli said he wasn’t able to appreciate success then and as a head coach now, winning brings on an entirely different feeling.

“When it’s your program, when your name is attached to it,” said Brunelli, “it’s pretty special.”

Leading his team onto the floor at Reynolds Coliseum will be special too. But Brunelli said he doesn’t imagine it being much different than walking out at Webb. He’s too focused to allow the moment to overtake him. He’s got too much film to watch, too much to prepare for.

“Right now I’ve been so focused on the task at hand it hasn’t set in,” Brunelli said of reaching the state title game. “The closest thing I can say that set in was Sunday when my daughter noticed on the McDonald’s sign in Oxford the ‘Go Warriors.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s us. There’s no one else that could be at this minute. That has to be us.’”

Brunelli said getting extra time with his team the last two weeks preparing for the regionals and now the state championship has been “like winning the lottery.”

Hicks, Smith, Mack Lyon, and Tre Wilkerson make up the senior class. Starters Mitron Terry, Tyrek Beverly, Stefan Cates, and Devonte Williams are each back next season. But Brunelli doesn’t have time to look ahead.

“I’m trying to enjoy the heck out of this year,” said Brunelli. “This group is pretty special. We have Isaiah and Bryan as captains and Mack and Tre as seniors. I’m going to miss them, but I’m going to miss them once we finish our mission.”

Contact the writer at kholtzman@hendersondispatch.com.